I have in my life met many, many people who have been to Paris and visited the Louvre and loved the experience. I have never in my life met anyone who has come back and complained about paying to get into it.
That awkward fact plays on my mind as we all celebrate 10 years of free admission to national museums and galleries, and the subsequent increase in visitor numbers.
I should be celebrating as I was among those campaigning for free admission a decade ago. But I'm having second thoughts. One reason is that while admission is proclaimed to be free, those special exhibitions that take place in the free institutions, say, Degas at the Royal Academy or Leonardo at the National Gallery, are ever more expensive, £14 and £16 respectively in those two cases. And that's not to mention those charges for audio guides, cloakrooms, gallery maps.
I also begin to wonder if all national museums and galleries need to be free. With art galleries, people do tend to go back and revisit particular paintings or rooms. Those who work nearby might even visit several times a week in their lunch hour. But is that really quite as likely at, say, the Natural History Museum? Marvellous, as it is, is that really a three-visit a week institution?
And then there is the tourist factor. International visitors now make up a third of visitors to national museums. Why exactly are they getting free admission in these straitened times? Of course, you can't have people show their passports at a gallery to sort the home-grown taxpayers from overseas visitors. But could one not have a tourist tax at hotels, part of which would go to the upkeep of museums and galleries?
The museums and galleries boast that they have broadened their audience since free admission was introduced. But I suspect that the Royal Opera House and National Theatre would also broaden their audience if they were free. Art does seem to have a special status here. And, by the way, there's a little less to free admission than meets the eye. The Tate is free in London, but not in St Ives. Work that one out if you can.
I also wonder if art galleries might go out of their way more to attract visitors if they knew that visitors were paying. Might they perhaps open in the evenings every day, an idea I suggested a few weeks ago. Readers reacted very positively, agreeing that galleries were open when many of us were at work, and not always open when we had the time and inclination to visit.
A cheap season ticket to national museums and galleries – a version of the Art Pass that the National Art Fund offers to visit museums across the country – might bring income to galleries and ensure that tourists paid their way.
One feels almost heretical saying it, but if galleries opened at night, and if exhibitions were included in the price of general admission, charging might have its virtues.
A sledgehammer to crack a Nutcracker
As reported in this paper earlier this week, there are four productions of The Nutracker in London this Christmas. That would be funny if it wasn't a little serious. All four productions of Tchaikovsky's ballet are either at publicly subsidised venues or being staged by publicly subsidised companies, or both.
Being in receipt of public money surely means a responsibility not to replicate another publicly subsidised company in the same city. And, more important, we keep being told that there is a new generation of dynamic choreographers around. Do they hibernate at this time of year? Is it beyond the wit of any of them to come up with an alternative Christmas treat for dance lovers? If I were dispensing the cash next year, I would say there should be only one Nutcracker in the capital. Then maybe dance companies would make the effort to come up with some new material.
Next time you see a tramp at an awards do...
Awards ceremonies often need livening up, and this week I heard an excellent story of one where this is certainly what happened. Melvyn Bragg hosts the South Bank Show Awards (now resuscitated by Sky Arts along with the show itself). I was chatting to Bragg about this, and he revealed that one year he invited the notoriously enigmatic graffiti artist Banksy to the awards. To everyone's surprise, Banksy accepted. However, he clearly had second thoughts walking to the ceremony at the Savoy, and gave his ticket to a tramp in the Strand. The tramp folded up his bedding, put it over his shoulder and took up the invitation.
The doorman at the Savoy must have been warned that Banksy might be a little eccentric, as he welcomed the tramp, saying, "This way please, Mr Banks." The tramp duly took his place at the table and enjoyed a very cultural lunch, or as Bragg put it, "He got pissed out of his mind."
I wonder how many people at the event realised it wasn't the real Banksy.
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